Image credit: Billy Owens (Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images)
In the 75 years since Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball, six Black people have held the de facto title of MLB general manager.
One of the few individuals with a tangible chance to increase the number to seven is Billy Owens, the Athletics’ director of player personnel and assistant general manager.
Owens joined the organization as a minor league hitting coach and area scout in 1999. He was promoted to East Coast crosschecker in 2003 and moved to the front office in 2004, at the height of the Moneyball era. Over the decades, he has built a reputation for his ability to scout amateur players and professionals at a high level.
A true student of the game and its history, Owens recognizes the importance of the first six Black GMs for trailblazing the path for his own career as an executive.
“Bill Lucas, Bob Watson, Ken Williams, Tony Reagins, Dave Stewart and Michael Hill were able to hold the esteemed title of general manager and cultivate and organize as pioneers and heroes,” Owens said.
“When you go back in the history of baseball, those guys truly made an impact, and guys like myself are trying to climb the mountaintop in order to increase the numbers. They did that while galvanizing and trying to move forward, and it’s huge.
“To truly be a part of that history, and to keep it alive and moving forward, is a special opportunity and a remarkable feeling.”
Owens was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s, and his favorite player growing up was Los Angeles native Eddie Murray. The young Owens, who was a switch-hitting first baseman, patterned his game after the Orioles Hall of Famer.
Owens had a successful collegiate career as the backup quarterback and star first baseman at Arizona. Baltimore must have taken notice. The Orioles drafted Owens in the third round in 1992, and he played professionally for seven seasons, reaching Triple-A.
“I probably looked too much into the numbers and read too much literature as a player,” Owens said. “I always knew who was hitting what, and what pitchers had certain numbers. I was always somewhat scouting members of my own team and my opponents.”
Owens always knew he wanted to continue to work in baseball after his playing career ended.
“Whether it was a couple of injuries or Triple-A pitching, I started to realize that I might have to choose another path to stay working in baseball,” he said.
Owens’ eureka moment came in 1998 while playing for the Astros’ Double-A Jackson affiliate. A’s scout Ron Hopkins chatted with Owens during a rain delay.
“I was on a stacked Double-A team that included Lance Berkman, Julio Lugo and Freddy Garcia,” Owens said. “I didn’t think anything of it when (Hopkins and I) talked about the trade that sent Randy Johnson to the Astros (for Garcia and two other prospects). I just thought we were catching up and sharing knowledge.”
Hopkins cold-called Owens that offseason to gauge his interest in becoming a scout.
“I thought about where I was a player and what my realistic trajectory was. I sort of scouted myself,” Owens said “After thinking about it for two weeks, I decided to call back. I said ‘yes,’ did an interview, and that’s how my odyssey started.”
Owens’ first post-playing step in 1999 was key. He worked as an area scout for half the season and as hitting coach for short-season Southern Oregon for the other half.
“It was easy to see that there were a ton of good players out here,” Owens said. “It was exhilarating to learn the craft and see guys from a different lens than the playing perspective.
“Being a short-season coach during the summertime gave me a balance where I was able to canvas and cultivate the areas I was assigned to and then get to coach and direct those same kids during the summertime.”
Owens views being linked to the colors of his hometown team as a blessing. His inner child has gleamed with pure joy since his very first day with the A’s.
His journey has taken him far, but Owens isn’t done climbing.